The task: investigating the 'cultural and traditional aspects of alcohol around the world'. In other words, getting very drunk in six of the world's most formidable drinking capitals. The man for the job? Dom Joly.
Picture the scenario if you will. You're offered the opportunity to travel round the world with your best mate, getting drunk, with a TV company footing the bill. I can't really imagine that it gets much better. But it's happened and I've spent the past year doing just that with my best friend Pete. The downside is that I fear anything I do in the future is bound to be a total letdown. I should really leave television all together (Please!! I hear you cry) as I've definitely peaked.
My new series, Dom Joly's Happy Hour kicks off on Tuesday and is allegedly an investigation into the "cultural and traditional aspects of alcohol around the world". That's what the channel asked me to say, anyway. They got very nervous about the whole idea once it had been commissioned. We suddenly started receiving long legal letters explaining that we should always drink responsibly and in context, never to excess, never glorify alcohol and make sure that we show the downside. Yeah, right.
In the beginning we'd ring the Sky lawyer from weird bars in the middle of Alabama at three o'clock in the morning to check whether our fifth double Jack Daniel's was in context. She soon got very bored of this and, since then, we've been given pretty much a free hand.
One of the problems of doing a show supposedly investigating alcohol is that we might very well discover something interesting but we'd invariably forget about it by the next morning and have to start again. Fortunately I quickly developed a house style that can be best described as "faux journalism" where facts are never that important: it's all about the journey. It's been a gonzo kind of year, rolling around the world getting drunk for professional reasons and then watching loads of DVDs and drinking coffee in darkened rooms on days off.
Family has also been an issue. Between us, Pete and I have six children and two very patient wives who've put up with us travelling the world getting drunk and then attempting to pretend that it's work and that they should be grateful to us. Pete lives in Newfoundland and is a "digital artist", whatever that might be, so, when he's not watching icebergs float past, he's pretty much of a house-husband and I know that his family have really missed him. If you don't know much about Newfoundland, don't worry, no one does. It's an island off Canada - think the Falklands with less to do. Although it's been tough leaving the tundra, he's certainly made the most of the break.
My kids have also been very confused as they try to describe to their teacher what daddy is doing.
"He's away in India getting drunk."
"He's living with kangaroos getting drunk."
"He's in Tequila getting drunk."
They must be so proud.
But what's the point of the programme? Have we actually learnt anything? Good questions. I shall attempt to answer them by writing a little bit about each trip. I emphasise the word attempt because I've just got back from our last trip to India and I'm feeling a little hungover but I'll do my best. It should be OK, after all I am now a professional journalist.
I've been to the States a lot and felt that I knew the country pretty well. What I subsequently discovered was that I only really knew the coastal cosmopolitan edges. America is two separate circular countries. One, the sophisticated coastline, has the cocktail bars f and liberal lifestyles - the second and far bigger country is the American heartland, completely encircled by the heathen first. The heartland is where people vote for Bush and believe in God (and I mean really believe in God). We kicked off in one of my favourite US cities, Miami. Upon arrival we realised that there wasn't much investigation to be done there really. Basically, it's hot, people drink cocktails and ... well, that's pretty much it. It was more about the contrast with our next stop that was slap bang in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, 10 miles from where they filmed Deliverance. There we met Barney Barnwell, a true redneck icon who still makes his own moonshine and is almost impossible to understand. He made us honorary judges of their annual moonshine tasting contest and we sat around a campfire, his bluegrass band "Plum Hollow" playing beside us, and tasted a bewildering variety of unbelievably strong moonshine brewed by his friends and neighbours. At one stage I asked Barney how strong the stuff was.
"Schpit it ooon the foyrere," he commanded.
This I duly did and the flames roared up like a small mushroom cloud.
"Noww youz cant seet why sit's illighgal." He chuckled as he necked another pint of the lethal liquid.
"Our hast joudge dieeed," he continued and we realised that it might be time to leave.
We were off to hit the Deep South, America's Bible Belt, where many counties actually ban the sale of alcohol and travelling gangs of Southern Baptists visit stores and threaten to pray that they get cancer if they sell any. There were many similarities with the type of regime that the Taliban had imposed on Afghanistan. They hadn't quite banned television yet as this was too useful a source of income but there was a scary strain of puritanism in the air wherever we went.
Trying to remember what we learnt in America, that horrible word "freedom" keeps coming to mind. Whether it was in the flesh-pots of Miami, the badlands of Southern Carolina or the God-fearing swathes of the Bayou, everyone was concerned with their "freedom". The freedom to get smashed, to not pay taxes on your home-distilled liquor, the freedom to restrict other people's freedoms to drink. It was all very confusing. I hoped that we'd learn something more at our final destination, New Orleans, the original Sin City. We were going there for Mardi Gras. Sadly we got very drunk in Mississippi and got waylaid. When we finally arrived in the Big Easy, Mardi Gras was over and there was almost no one about. We didn't really mind.
Alcohol and Russia is a no-brainer. It's one word - vodka. Russians can really drink. One in three deaths in Russia are alcohol related and it's an out-of-control epidemic. President Putin has been desperately trying to promote beer instead of vodka in an attempt to stem the tide. Beer is seen as something of a soft drink at the moment and there is no legal age limit for drinking it. My introduction to the sheer extent of Russian vodka drinking was on a visit to a Moscow supermarket where a simply staggering amount of the stuff was on sale. Kosher vodka, cherry vodka, erotic vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka as far as the eye could see. It was extraordinary. Vodka literally means "baby water" and it seems that most Russians have been drinking it from birth. Everywhere we went we'd end up in a elaborate series of toasts in huge shot glasses that would leave us reeling and unable to work for long periods. The toasts were interminable: to our families, our friends ... our dogs. I was worried when the parents came up. Both Pete and my parents are divorced, did that mean we had to drink four toasts? The Russians loved this question and would endlessly debate it and then propose a toast to whatever solution was agreed upon.
Things got worse as we travelled out of Moscow. Menus were fantastic and obviously translated by some English student with a wicked sense of humour. At one particular restaurant we were offered "narrow minded soup" and "depressed duck". I ordered both immediately. The soup took one look at me and announced that it didn't like my type and refused to be eaten with a spoon. Very narrow-minded, but then, that's soups for you.
The climax came in a small satellite town outside St Petersburg where we met Sergei who still makes Samogon, a particularly potent homemade vodka that had a resurgence in the Eighties when Gorbachev tried to ban the sale of vodka. As well as drinking perfume, cleaning liquids and glue, Russians rediscovered the art of the home brew and Sergei was apparently the master. I'd love to be able to tell you more but none of it's very clear. I remember being in a flat and Sergei showing us his still; then, many, many toasts and starting to feel like I was some form of all-powerful totalitarian God - for a brief moment, I was Stalin himself. Then ... nothing, waking up, like a kidnap victim in a hotel in St Petersburg with no idea of where I was or how I'd got there.
I never really believed in blackouts or memory loss before. To me it was always an excuse for having embarrassed yourself the night before. Unfortunately for me, there was a camera crew on hand to document my very first one. Sky wouldn't allow us to broadcast most of it as it was deemed too offensive but there's enough there to make my mother blush.
Russians drink because there's some deep sadness somewhere in their inner psyche that they're trying very hard to repress. They drink in a very different way to anyone else. They have no time for bars and comforts and canned music. They just wake up, crack open a bottle and get going. I loved them, warm-hearted and funny, but there is this demon lurking beneath the surface that seems to haunt the entire country. Oh, and Pete and I had to do a Morris dance, on stage, in front of a Russian dance school ... which was nice.
"I love Tequila, it makes me happy." Words from a song by Terrorvision that I couldn't get out of my head as we landed in the megapolis that is Mexico City. The thing is, I don't really like Tequila. I always associate it with evenings that have spun badly out of control when someone suggests that you start doing slammers. I don't like the taste or the after-effects, so I wasn't really look forward to this particular leg of the series. As so often, I was very wrong. On the very first evening, as we relaxed with our "oh so relaxed" Mexican fixer, Felipe, he ordered a bottle of the finest Tequila known to man. It was a revelation. We sipped it like a treasured single malt and he was incredibly disapproving of lime and salt as this was a sign that the tequila is rubbish. He did eventually introduce us to the joys of a small glass of lime juice, f another of spicy tomato juice and then the dark gold of the tequila itself. This made up the colours of the Mexican flag, something the Mexicans are incredibly keen on doing in every culinary area.
Mexican drinking is pretty much another one-word sum-up - cactus. Everything comes from the Agave cactus that turns whole swathes of the country a gorgeous blue.
There's Pulque, the original Aztec drink and the most basic cactus juice of them all and favoured by the working class. Without being too graphic, it looks and tastes (I imagine!) like a pint of semen. You don't even get that drunk on it. You get into a Pulque state that's apparently a bit different, although no one could really describe it as being too Pulqued.
Then there's Mezcal; one step up the evolutionary ladder, mostly illegal, and made in the same way as Tequila. It's unable to call itself Tequila, as it's not grown in the right area. It tastes very rough and you really need the lime and salt. We moved on rapidly.
The daddy of them all is, of course, Tequila itself, grown in the lush volcanic crater that surrounds the gorgeous little town. We met a great character called Guillermo whose grandfather had one of the best tequilas in the country but had sold up when Guillermo was very small. It was like some cheesy movie script. The loss of the company had plagued Guillermo all his life. He moved to the States, set up a very successful software company but just couldn't get the Tequila out of his blood. He eventually moved back to Mexico, bought his grandfather's old premises and set up "Los Abuelos", the best Tequila that I had in my life. As we sat on the terrace of his palatial mansion above the town, the passion poured out of him.
"This is all I've ever wanted to do," he said with a big grin as he poured another glass.
"My son will take over from me and these hills will never not be blue again." He looked and sounded like Paul Newman and it was hard to remember that this was reality. He summed up Mexico to me. It's all about passion. I'd had stereotypical visions of Speedy Gonzales taking a constant siesta. It was the opposite: their zest for life, for machismo, for drinking, the endless fiesta, is all done with a verve I've not seen anywhere else. In the words of Speedy Gonzales, "andale, andale, ariba!" I don't know what it means but it sounds really cool.
Let's face facts. Australia was always going to be a fairly simple affair.
Question: "Do Aussies like beer?"
Answer: "Yes, very much."
"OK that's a wrap, everybody; thanks for coming, principal cinematography in Australia is at an end."
I was pretty sure that this was going to be a show by numbers - not exactly an exposé on anything. I hadn't reckoned on the Northern Territories.
Known as "the Top End" by most of Australia, I'd only really seen the place in harrowing Ray Mears shows where crashed airmen wander around aimlessly before dying of thirst. Death, I soon realised, was a common theme up here. Joanne Lees had just published her book about being attacked and her boyfriend being killed on the Stuart Highway and this was just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone we met had a story about a killing, a disappearance, a serial massacre. This was not a relaxing place for the traveller.
On our first night in "the bush" we watched a film, Wolf Creek, on my laptop. It was the most popular film in Australia and was a slasher killer story about a nutter who hacks up a vanload of Pommy backpackers. We slept very badly that night and from then on drank enough beer to knock us unconscious so that, should the end come violently in the night, we wouldn't feel a thing.
Aussies in the Top End drink almost continuously but there is a science to their system. From breakfast to about four o'clock they sup from tinnies of relatively weak beer (3.5 per cent). These are known as "all day suckers" and are consumed in vast quantities. After four o'clock, one moves on to something like a VB that is up around five per cent. These are drunk until about seven when even stronger beers are cracked open and interlaced with strong shots of "Bundi" rum and coke until you become incoherent and then pass out.
Keeping beers cold is an essential thing in the Top End and the Aussies have invented the "Stubby holder," a cup-shaped foam holder that you slip your cold bottle into so that your hands don't warm the bottle up. There could very possibly have been an Aussie on the moon by now but their finest scientific minds have been working on other, far more important, problems.
In stark contrast to the easy-going Aussie approach to drinking were the Aboriginals who drink themselves into a stupor and lie unconscious under every tree in sight. They have little education and few prospects and most wait for their Thursday government cheques and drink themselves into oblivion. Our white Aussie guides poo-pooed the f problems, blaming it on the Aboriginals and their "laziness", but the problem is there for everyone to see and is the elephant in the room. This was yet another country where two completely different societies co-existed uneasily in the same geography. It was very unsettling.
I loved the Outback. I took to wearing "Budgie smugglers" (Steve Irwin-type tight shorts) and trapping crocodiles with consummate ease. It was just a shame I couldn't stay to watch us thrash them in the Ashes but there was drinking (sorry, journalism) to be done elsewhere.
Both Pete and I used to live in Prague where drinking is a fairly hardcore activity. I thought that it would be interesting to return there on a road trip through Europe. It became even more interesting when we managed to blag a top of the range Jag and the whole trip became über-comfortable.
We started in Belgium, one of my favourite countries and, in my opinion, one of the most under-rated countries in Europe. In Bruges we visited "the bar of three hundred beers" and did our best to taste them all. We pondered for a while about how, in the US, Christians were up in arms about alcohol, whereas in Belgium, monks make the stuff. We were fairly confident that there was some important point to be made about this but had consumed too many beers so we gave up the analysis and carried on drinking.
Germany provided us with an extraordinary discovery: Germans love beer. We have managed to keep this discovery under wraps until now but I feel it's time that we let the whole world know of our amazing discovery. What is probably less well known is that they also swim in the stuff. We went to a spa where we swam around in enormous vats of it until I felt ill and had to get out.
After an unsuccessful attempt to organise a piss-up in a brewery in Pilsen we arrived in Prague, our old stomping ground. There was only one real reason that we were both here: Absinthe. Not the piss-poor stuff that is sold everywhere but the real, Toulouse-Lautrec mad-making stuff. After a heavy afternoon's research we decided to test its supposed art-enhancing powers. Pete and I both wrote a poem each and then staggered over to a poetry reading competition where we put the stuff to the test. It was a total disaster - Pete nearly passed out on-stage while my reading of the poem "Nine Million" starting at one and working up was not a total success.
When I used to live there, back in the early Nineties, I was a diplomat and Prague was just awaking from her long Communist nightmare. Back then it was still a real jewel of a city, with budding pseudo-intellectuals with goatees cramming the pavement cafés and smoking furiously while writing their first never-to-be published novels. It was like 1920s Paris; for once I actually was in the right place at the right time, and it was intoxicating. Sadly, now that the Brits have discovered the beer is cheap the place has turned into a bit of a stag hellzone. I tried to find out what Czechs really thought of this chav invasion but they stayed very Czech and non-committal about it all. We ended our European tour by visiting the hardest drinkers of the series: the members of the Briketta Club, a tiny bar where workers come for vodka and beer before starting their morning shifts operating heavy industrial machinery. Pete and I had to admit defeat when offered shots of a mysterious substance simply called "green". It was one drink too many and it was time to Czech out.
I was interested in filming in India because, apart from the occasional Cobra and Kingfisher beer with a curry in the UK I knew very little about alcohol within the country. Any travel show that I'd ever seen always focused on religion, hippies and drugs. Alcohol seemed to have been severely neglected. I was originally going to film in Iran, as it would have been well within the spirit of this show to do a programme in a dry country. Sky, however, felt that Iran might be a tad "complicated" for the viewers. This was a shame, but India it was. Another reason was that it appeared that we'd spent most of the budget, and India is a cheap country to film in.
The show turned out to be a cracker. India is the world's largest producer of whisky, has a world-class champagne called "Omar Khayam" and its own killer version of moonshine called "palm wine". There was such a problem with poor villagers brewing up the stuff and killing hundreds of people at weddings that the government started producing "country liquor", which was at least hygienic. We attempted to drink some in Mumbai but it was as close to petrol as anything that I've ever tasted. We quickly drowned the taste with some medicine - a stiff gin and tonic (it's the quinine, it's good for malaria).
India is divided along age lines. Traditional, older India does not really drink and, even if it does, it's only in privacy and never in public. Young aspirational India, however, drinks like a fish, and sales of all types of alcohol, particularly spirits and wine, are going through the roof as smart young middle- class Indians drink everything that they can lay their hands on.
Alcohol businesses do have a big problem advertising their wares as it's illegal; but they've shown some truly innovative methods of circumventing the law. Vineyards advertise their grapes rather than the finished product and some beer companies have bought mineral water companies that have exactly the same labels as their beer allowing them to advertise extensively and legally.
Leaving Mumbai, we visited Goa where trance and dance are fuelled by alcohol and drugs. I took the opportunity of dressing up as some Seventies refugee and severely annoying some of the more annoying Western inhabitants eager to show just how enlightened they'd become. It was a fitting end to an amazing year in which we've travelled the globe in the name of research and a drink. It'll take me a couple more to recover but it's been a blast. If only I could remember all of it. I'm sure that we found some amazing things out. Ah well, there's always Series Two on drugs - Dom Joly's Bad Trips. Now that's going to be interesting.
'Dom Joly's Happy Hour' begins Tuesday on Sky One at 9pmReuse content